Living through what he describes as “a time like no other” has required Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney for exactly four years, to think hard about what lies ahead. The immediate future may or may not hold some form of local lockdown, as leaders across London stand ready to be hit by a Covid second wave. The longer term entails rebuilding amid the damage done by the first, and making plans for emerging tomorrows that remain unclear.
I met Glanville at the Well Street Kitchen, a café across the road from where Jack Cohen began his Tesco empire and the transitioning Well Street market in E9. The council has just produced a document called Rebuilding A Better Hackney, which sets out broad recovery strategies and goals. But first I asked Glanville, who is my local Mayor, about the prospect of our borough, or maybe part of it, being subject to fresh and particular steps to keep the virus under control, as has happened to Leicester, Birmingham, Greater Manchester and a cluster of towns in the North of England. What might a Hackney, or indeed any London local lockdown entail?
Two weeks ago, Glanville publicly warned that infection rates across Hackney had been rising and especially so in the north of the borough. Residents of Stamford Hill West, Cazenove and Springfield wards were asked to stop meeting members of other households in domestic settings and not to socialise with them in shops, community centres or places of worship. “The key challenge is transmission within and between households,” Glanville wrote.
National government decides when persuasion gives way to compulsion, even at hyper local levels: it compiles the watch lists and decides when measures are imposed. Glanville’s hope is that if that happens on his patch, the national authorities will listen to the local ones – not just him, but his borough’s director of public health and the London part of Public Health England, with which close contact is maintained.
He says he would see his job as arguing that, “We don’t need a borough-wide approach, we need something far more nuanced.” Steps taken in one part of the borough might simply be unnecessary and unfair to other parts of it. And hiving off specific areas would be futile: “If you closed Well Street as a shopping street, people would just go to Hackney Central instead.” The same would apply to shutting down Hackney as a whole. London being a mass of connected, coterminous neighbourhoods, Hackney residents would simply head for Islington or Stratford.
“If you’re looking at lockdown tools that would work in the types of clusters we’re seeing in Hackney, including outside Stamford Hill, it’s about not letting down your guard when seeing family and friends in the home or settings similar to it,” he says. “No one’s done a lockdown at a sub-council level, and so the question is, would you do it at a Hackney level, or a neighbourhood level, or at ward level or even smaller than that?”
For Glanville, a Labour Mayor, there’s also a question mark above national government’s competence and attitude. “In the lead up to such a decision, you as a local authority would want to be involved. But would it come down as a blunt instrument from above?” He wouldn’t want a call at 11.00 at night, saying “you’re locked down from tomorrow morning.” Consistency, in his view, has been shown by Boris Johnson’s administration only in “the deep disrespect for local government and its public services, which are always leapfrogged to a national solution, which then stutters”.
He says the testing system isn’t good enough and, since our meeting, has slammed it again after a change in its workings handed down from the top left people unable to secure walk-in appointments at the two Hackney testing sites. He is concerned that “we still haven’t cracked care homes – I am at a loss to understand why” and adds that he doubts enough flu vaccine has been obtained to limit the risk of a more traditional epidemic putting a strain on the NHS over the winter.
Looking back, he’s full of praise for Hackney’s huge variety of people – around 280,000 of us altogether – spread across a highly varied borough. “What I saw was quite resilient local town centres, where the economy came back more quickly. Part of that was people supporting people they know: the café-owner, the newsagent. Even though plenty were searching for home delivery slots, they were still going to markets. Ridley Road [in Dalston] was really important. And since 4 July, people have returned to our local pubs and restaurants, partly helped by ‘eat out to help out’.”
But it’s still hard going in some parts, notably Shoreditch, where the south of Hackney meets the largely-becalmed Square Mile. “It’s still really distressed,” Glanville says. “If you talk to businesses that service that office economy, it feels utterly different from what they knew before. In our rebuilding work, it’s important that we’ve got that sense that different parts of Hackney’s economy are going to need different types of support.” The Rebuilding document contains some frightening figures: 1,00o new Universal Credit claims a week; 14,000 emergency food parcels delivered; 20,000 households seeking further Council Tax rebates; 77% of businesses having to shut down when lockdown began.
Glanville expresses gratitude to the council’s workforce for their “huge effort and willingness”, some of them working from home, others adapting to re-adjusted service provision. I doubt I was alone in the first weeks of full lockdown to wonder if, say, domestic bin collections would deteriorate. They didn’t. “Commercial waste withered while household waste increased,” Glanville says. He thinks having in-sourced services made redistributing staff to different roles easier. Also: “When residents really began to recognise and love what our people were doing, I think that really helped morale.”
The strain on the borough’s finances – Glanville says they are still coming up £68 million short this year, which is roughly half of what’s been taken from them by government cuts over 10 years – has been a little less than felt by others, thanks partly to a voluntary redundancy programme being completed before Covid hit. But he worries, naturally, about what’s next.
Even a “V-shaped” recovery might not ever restore lost Council Tax and Business Rate income to previous levels, because some businesses and jobs, especially for the youngest and oldest, will not come back. Normally, next year’s budget would be nailed down before Christmas, but with 2021/22, “You’re planning for next year while you’ve still got uncertainty in this year, and you don’t have any idea what next year’s funding settlement will look like.”
The autumn is still young. As the borough’s schools embark on their new term, the post-lockdown attendance picture is still forming. There could be lots of reasons why children are absent. “Parents may have health concerns about them, or have someone shielding in their home. It’s about how you work with those parents. The anxiety of a young person with a lot of health issues or other challenges is going to be amplified by what we’re going through. I’m very worried about a punitive response either from schools or the system when I know from talking to residents that many of them are still very nervous.”
Can anything much good come of Covid? Not “a huge amount” for the time being, fears the Mayor. The continuation of lower private rent levels and less Air B ‘n’ B could “take the pressure off homelessness and the affordability crisis”. There’s an interesting debate about the possibility of long-term increased migration from Inner to Outer London, driven by the embrace of home-working and a desire for more space. However, Glanville senses no accelerated departure rate from Hackney: “I don’t get the impression many are thinking they want to live in Redbridge or Havering instead because it would be better in a future pandemic.” And much of what people want from “the 15-minute city” is already provided.
What’s newer is the unfolding legacy of loss. “That deep sense of sorrow and trauma the borough felt is still there,” Glanville says. “There’s a lot of unease among people who were formerly shielded, vulnerable, who aren’t comfortable with the new world that’s opening up. That’s a challenge that hasn’t gone away.”
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